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No Better Place to Die
The Battle of Stones River
By Peter Cozzens
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESSCopyright © 1990 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
Summer of Hope, Autumn of Despair
General Braxton Bragg needed a scapegoat. Defeat in Kentucky had cast a pall over his army and the nation; retreat into Tennessee transformed the loss into a clamor for the general's dismissal. For much of this, Bragg had only himself to blame. His buoyant predictions of victory and subsequent rapid advance into Kentucky had excited the imagination and hopes of the Confederate people who, reading the exuberant dispatches emanating from the Army of the Mississippi as it pushed northward, came to expect nothing less than the total restoration of Confederate authority over the border region. The sudden collapse of the autumn campaign, coming in the wake of Lee's withdrawal from Maryland, left them profoundly shaken, and their shattered expectations erupted into a wave of censure that none were more anxious to ride than Bragg's own most-senior lieutenants. As the army filed through the Cumberland Gap and out of Kentucky, lieutenant generals William J. Hardee and Leonidas Polk urged President Davis to recognize that only a change of commanders could save the army and salvage Confederate fortunes in the West. Their allegations echoed throughout the South. In Richmond, "earnest and angry" debate shook the floor of the Confederate Congress as members endorsed a resolution reflecting the demands of Hardee and Polk. The Southern press, never known for its self-restraint, quickly added its voice to the clamor.
As much as he might wish to protect his longtime friend, Davis could not ignore the demands of the general's defamers, who were legion and powerful. On the other hand, the president had no intention of relieving Bragg without a hearing, and so he summoned the general to Richmond to present his version of the campaign. Bragg lost no time. Perhaps sensing an opportunity to shift blame for the Kentucky debacle to his subordinates, he boarded an east-bound train out of Knoxville the morning after Davis's message was delivered to him.
Although many were only too anxious to heap responsibility for the sorry state of affairs in the West on the North Carolinian's shoulders, his abandonment of Kentucky was merely the culmination of a chain of events predating Bragg that had left the Confederate heartland vulnerable, its people fearful and discouraged. In fact, many thoughtful Southerners believed that the nadir actually had been reached four months earlier, in June 1862, when Pierre G. T. Beauregard's Army of the Mississippi, principal defender of the heartland, relinquished Corinth to three converging Union armies without firing a shot, thereby conceding the northern tip of Mississippi, and with it the vital Memphis and Charleston Railroad. Not only did Beauregard's withdrawal result in the cutting of a rail artery that had pumped supplies critical to the survival of the Confederacy eastward to the Atlantic, but it opened the way to a Federal advance on Chattanooga, gateway to the Deep South.
It was at this moment, under the shadow of impending doom, that Braxton Bragg replaced Beauregard as commander of the Army of the Mississippi, then lying idle at Tupelo. Several weeks later, he was elevated to command of all Confederate forces between Mississippi and Virginia.
Bragg faced three immediate challenges: he must protect Chattanooga, reopen the Memphis and Charleston Railroad, and recover at least a portion of Tennessee.
As the defense of Chattanooga was most urgent, Bragg rushed the division of Major General John P. McCown to the threatened city. After several weeks of correspondence with the commander of the Department of East Tennessee, Major General Edmund Kirby Smith, Bragg elected to transfer his entire army to Chattanooga. In doing so, he countered an advance against the city by Major General Don Carlos Buell's Army of the Ohio, which, despite a head start of over a month, had moved at a snail's pace.
With Chattanooga secure, Bragg met Kirby Smith on 31 July, ostensibly to discuss future operations. But if Kirby Smith had expected to have a voice in what was about to transpire, he was disappointed — the North Carolinian had already decided on his next move. Since assuming command of the Army of the Mississippi, Bragg had entertained a number of Kentucky's leading citizens, all of whom offered assurance of their state's fidelity and of the willingness of her men to join the Confederate service, should Bragg's army but appear on bluegrass soil. Bragg was convinced. A successful thrust into the state, he believed, not only would relieve pressure on the Deep South, but would return much of Tennessee to the Confederacy. And, if his Kentucky guests were correct, his army would be augmented by thousands of desperately needed volunteers. For the moment Bragg's enthusiasm was contagious, and Kirby Smith returned to his Knoxville headquarters committed to a joint advance. Before leaving, he told Bragg: "I will not only co-operate with you, but will cheerfully place my command under you subject to your orders."
Despite the apparent agreement between Bragg and Kirby Smith, their subordinates doubted the prospects of a campaign in which neither general commanded the other, and in which neither was willing to relinquish his autonomy, Kirby Smith's pledge to the contrary notwithstanding. As Bragg's chief of cavalry, Brigadier General Joseph Wheeler, later wrote, mere agreement as to intent was a poor substitute for unified command, particularly in an operation calling for the synchronized movement of two armies.
But could Bragg have exercised such authority effectively had it been his? Contemporaries were skeptical. The dyspeptic martinet was having trouble enough with his own subordinates. Witness the experience of Major General Richard Taylor, son of former president Zachary Taylor and a shrewd observer, who visited army headquarters in Chattanooga just prior to the invasion of Kentucky. At dinner one evening, Taylor inquired casually about a widely esteemed division commander. In the presence of his staff, Bragg retorted that the officer in question was "an old woman, utterly worthless." Taylor was shocked. "Such a declaration privately made would have been serious," he noted, "but publicly, and certain to be repeated, it was astonishing." Retiring with Bragg to a private room, Taylor asked with whom he intended to replace the general. With no one, Bragg answered. "I have but one or two fitted for high command, and have in vain asked the War Department for capable people." From that moment Taylor doubted that the Kentucky campaign would succeed.
Taylor's encounter was painfully typical of dealings people had with the commanding general. Bragg seemed to repel men with disarming ease. To the visiting Englishman Arthur Freemantle, he was "the least prepossessing of the Confederate generals." Photographs of Bragg confirm this. Bushy black eyebrows and a stubby, iron-grey beard were the only distinguishing features of an otherwise plain, almost cadaverous countenance, the work of years of dyspepsia, dysentery, and chronic headaches, afflictions that also conspired to sour his temper and enfeeble him, so much so, according to an intimate, that he was unable to endure long periods of stress or responsibility. Richard Taylor agreed. He suggested simply that Bragg "furnished a striking illustration of the necessity of a healthy body for a sound intellect." Even Bragg's staunchest supporters admonished him for his quick temper, general irritability, and tendency to wound innocent men with barbs thrown during his frequent fits of anger. His reluctance to praise or flatter was exceeded, we are told, only by the tenacity with which, once formed, he clung to an adverse impression of a subordinate. For such officers — and they were many in the Army of the Mississippi — Bragg's removal or their transfer were the only alternatives to an unbearable existence.
As their leaders endured Bragg's indignities, so the men in ranks suffered the more palpable sting of the general's rigid and unyielding brand of discipline. The "martinet of the old army" had a reputation, not entirely gratuitous, for shooting liberally for insubordination, as the following story, then circulating throughout the army and the country, demonstrates. During the retreat from Shiloh, when absolute stealth was imperative, Bragg directed that no gun be discharged, death being the penalty for disobedience. A drunk young Rebel chose to flout the order with a few random shots at a chicken along the roadside. The chicken escaped un-scathed, but not so the soldier, who was summarily shot for having betrayed the route of march. Not surprisingly, given the army's antipathy to Bragg, the incident became exaggerated in the telling. The unlucky soldier was said to have been condemned by Bragg for having killed a chicken. Similar tales followed. Some whispered that the commanding general had had a man shot for stealing apples, others insisted that he had hanged sixteen more from a single tree for an unspecified offense. It is pointless to demonstrate the absurdity of these accusations. What is significant is that many men within the Army of the Mississippi believed them, and that is more damning to Bragg's reputation than a score of battlefield reverses.
Such was the state of the army as it marched out of Chattanooga on 28 August, crossing the Tennessee River the same day. Two weeks earlier, Kirby Smith had struck out for Lexington, Kentucky, and, after skirting around the Federal garrison at Cumberland Gap, soundly defeated a Union column at Richmond that had been dispatched to oppose him. Kirby Smith's Army of Kentucky entered Lexington without further incident, where it remained until October.
Bragg also was doing well. He had driven as far north as Carthage, Tennessee, just below the Cumberland River, before Buell decided that the Confederates did not have designs against Nashville. Moving out of that city on 12 September, he engaged Bragg in a race for the real Confederate objective: Louisville, Kentucky.
It was a fair contest. Although Bragg was twenty-five miles nearer the river city, Buell had at his disposal the Louisville and Nashville Railroad, which Bragg moved at once to eliminate as a factor in the campaign. While Joe Wheeler and his troopers tore up the line at selected points above Nashville, Bragg pushed his infantry on to Bowling Green, reaching the southern Kentucky town ahead of Buell on 14 September. He then turned his column toward the Federal fort at Munfordville, where the railroad crossed the Green River. Earlier that day, Brigadier General James Chalmers had attacked the garrison with the Rebel vanguard, only to meet with a sharp repulse. Learning of his subordinate's check, Bragg ordered the remainder of the army to Munfordville on 15 September. Buell followed, but he was too late. Bragg reached Munfordville first and, after "boldly displaying" his army, accepted the surrender of the garrison.
A new spirit of elation infused the Army of the Mississippi as many believed the campaign to be all but won. And well they could. With his infantry entrenched on commanding ground south of the Green River, squarely across the path of the advancing Federals, Bragg held the key to Louisville. And with the fort at Munfordville incorporated into their defenses, the Confederates occupied a position of "great natural strength" that Buell could not circumvent. Accordingly, he prepared to attack.
But the battle everyone expected never came. For reasons that remain unclear, Bragg chose not to fight. His generals were baffled. Visiting headquarters on the morning of 18 September, Joe Wheeler had found Bragg determined to do battle and confident of success. The entire army was in high spirits. Even the aporetic Polk expected victory. But just two days later, Bragg ordered a withdrawal to Bardstown, muttering that the campaign must be won by marching, not fighting. In stepping aside, he opened the road to Louisville. Buell was surprised, Kirby Smith "astonished and disappointed." Bragg's generals deplored the movement.
To a handful of trusted subordinates, Bragg explained the reasons for his action. His staff, it seems, had received information that Buell was being reinforced heavily. In reality, only George Thomas's lone division had joined the Federal army below Munfordville; nevertheless, Bragg was determined not to "expose his army to disaster, nor take any chances."
While Federal prospects brightened, thanks largely to Confederate vacillating, Bragg grew morose. Self-doubt and exasperation plagued him as he began to question the wisdom of the entire operation. Kentuckians were not flocking to the Stars and Bars as promised; instead, they turned a contemptuous cold shoulder to the tattered infantry as it passed. "The people here have too many fat cattle and are too well off to fight," Bragg complained to Colonel David Urquhart, a trusted member of his staff. On 25 September, as the Army of the Ohio marched unmolested into Louisville, Bragg echoed the same feeling in a note to President Davis: "I regret to say that we are sadly disappointed in the want of action by our friends in Kentucky. We have so far received no accession to this army. General Smith has secured about a brigade-not half our losses by casualties of different kinds. Unless a change occurs soon we must abandon the garden spot of Kentucky."
Bragg did not abandon Kentucky, but he might as well have. In abandoning Munfordville, he had relinquished the initiative to the Federals. As the Army of the Mississippi fell back on Bardstown to await the inevitable Union advance, the campaign lost its purpose and direction. Kirby Smith understood this and begged Bragg to turn and fight. Only a decisive victory, he argued, would draw Kentuckians to the Confederate armies. But the fight had gone out of Bragg. While Buell prepared to move on Bardstown, Bragg left his army to confer with Kirby Smith at Lexington, returning by way of Frankfort, where he attended the empty inauguration of Kentucky's provisional Confederate governor.
The expected Federal advance came while Bragg was away. On 2 October, Buell marched against Bardstown over three routes, while a fourth column under Brigadier General Joshua Sill demonstrated against Kirby Smith at Frankfort. Incorrectly assuming that the main thrust was against Kirby Smith, Bragg ordered Polk to concentrate at Harrodsburg so as to be in a position to slash at Sill's flank as it passed. Hardee, meanwhile, was already being pressed by the Union center, led by Major General Charles Gilbert. Turning to fight, Hardee deployed his corps along Doctor's Creek, west of Perryville. Hardee notified Bragg that he was facing a portion of Buell's army of undetermined size, and the North Carolinian responded by ordering Polk to Perryville with one division. Momentarily energized, Bragg told Polk to "give the enemy battle immediately." His instructions reached Polk and Hardee af ter sundown on 7 October. Hardee, who had held his ground against a Federal push toward Doctor's Creek, was horrified. He considered it a fundamental error of tactics to give battle with only a portion of the army present, and wrote Bragg a pedantic letter admonishing the commanding general in textbook language to delay an attack until his army could be united with Kirby Smith's. Polk, who assumed command of the forces before Perryville by virtue of seniority, agreed.
Daylight of 8 October found only Gilbert's isolated corps opposite the Confederates, but Polk and Hardee, awaiting an answer to the latter's note to Bragg, did nothing. Instead, the Federals attacked. Brigadier General Philip Sheridan seized a stretch of Doctor's Creek with one brigade in the early morning twilight and, finding little opposition, brought up his remaining brigades and held. A lull followed. Morning came and went. By noon, the remainder of Buell's army was up, and the advantage shifted to the Federals. Bragg arrived two hours later. Angered that his emphatic instructions had been ignored, he directed that an attack be made immediately. Despite the presence of the entire Union army on the field, the attack went well. Major General Alexander Mc-Cook's corps was shattered, and the Confederates gained a mile of ground before darkness put an end to the bloodshed. The Army of the Ohio passed a fitful night preparing to renew the contest at dawn.
But Bragg had had enough. Unwilling to sacrifice his army in what he now believed was a bankrupt campaign, he fell back to Harrodsburg under cover of darkness to organize a retreat from Kentucky. Bragg really had been looking over his shoulder for some time. In late September he had dispatched Nathan Bedford Forrest to secure the Middle Tennessee town of Murfreesboro and the surrounding country from the depredations of Union foragers. And on 14 October, just two days after choosing to abandon Kentucky, Bragg ordered Major General John C. Breckinridge's division there as well.
Excerpted from No Better Place to Die by Peter Cozzens. Copyright © 1990 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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